When Is A Poem Finished?

When I first got hooked on writing, I’d bang out 10 poems a day—no problem. Everything was spontaneous. Whatever came up came out. And I rarely looked back at a single line. I was writing more for the therapeutic value of writing than for the end product. I wrote thousands of poems this way. Thousands of terrible poems.

As I began to take poetry more seriously, I became a more careful craftsman. Revision became a much larger part of my writing process. So much so that now I often spend a week at a time revising a single poem. Word choices are reconsidered, the syntax of each line is adjusted, entire verse paragraphs are removed and rewritten, etc.

But alas, I remain dissatisfied with the final product. It seems that my only criterion for calling a poem “finished” is being frustrated with it and tired of looking at it. Or else I lose confidence in the poem. Worst of all, I get tunnel vision, and I worry that my revisions are taking a turn for the worse rather than improving the poem.

So, I think it’s important to pose some questions about the revision process: At what point does revision go too far (when does it only begin to weaken the poem)? I wouldn’t disagree with the old adage that a work of art is never finished, but when do we know to walk away and move on to the next project? How do we assess the completion of our own work with a clear, objective eye?

I am always reminded of Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro. I’ve heard that this poem was originally over thirty lines long, but Pound, with his Imagist eye for economy, cut it down to two lines and just fourteen words. Talk about revision!

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

by Ezra Pound (1885-1972)